The subject of “reviews” or rather, Amazon Comments, came up the other day. (I think on Facebook, can’t remember where.) The gist was: how useful are these Amazon reviews?
I personally take little notice of the 5 star and 1 star comments, the 5’s can often be “friends and family”, the 1’s are usually troll-ish rants. I look at the 4 stars first, and I usually only award 4 stars for my own comments – the 5’s, as far as I’m concerned, are the outstanding novels that I will want to read again and again, my favourites, while the 4 stars are the darn good reads.
I will also state here that I am more than happy to get 4 star reviews for my books (though I do like the 5 stars! LOL)
Out of curiosity I decided to look at the reviews for my first novel The Kingmaking which I originally had accepted for publication nearly twenty years ago. Partly, I wish I hadn’t as the one star rants from the US “reviewers” are a bit hurtful, but I swallowed that down and read through objectively.
On Amazon.com for this novel I’ve got (at time of writing this article) six 1 star comments and twenty-six 5 stars. In the UK I have seven 5’s and one 4 – that’s all. (Hmm no trolls in the UK?) What struck me, though - outside of the fact that these people obviously did not like the book (fair enough, each to their own) - was the uselessness of these lower star rants because most of these reviewers had completely missed the point about the novel: I deliberately set out to portray King Arthur as a non-Christian goody-goody, and to not stick to the more familiar traditional tales.
This seems to have been less understood in the US than the UK – perhaps UK readers are more open to change? I do also think that UK readers are not so squeamish about violence in historical fiction, be it on the battlefield or towards women. I have had American readers’ comments that state, “The battles were too realistic and descriptive.” While another comment could proclaim, “Hollick knows nothing of battles, she has no sense of what a real battle was like.” (Er… has anyone got a real idea of what battles in the Dark Ages were like?)
I have also found that American readers are not too keen on scenes of rape or the fact that women in the past were often wedded (and bedded) at twelve or thirteen years of age. Perhaps a UK reader’s perspective of history is more ingrained in us then some American readers?
UK readers also do not seem so bothered about the pedantics of whether a comma is in the right place or not, nor do we seem too affected by Point of View Changes. Is this because our use of English English is somewhat different from American English I wonder?
Here are a few examples of the differences of opinion:
“…We learn that Arthur isn't a great military leader, doesn't have much of a sense of honor, drinks a lot, and is a horrible womanizer.”
“Most frustrating for the reader with some knowledge of the Arthurian tradition is the way in which this tradition has been utterly abandoned, then replaced with nothing of real value. The spiritual Arthur, the chivalric Arthur, the noble Arthur, the sleeping Arthur whose legend inspires hope for the British people are all gone. In their place is a greedy warlord who aspires to little more than women, power, booze, and, did I mention, women?
The only saving grace in this story is that this Arthur is probably closer to the historical figure (if he actually existed) than most of the fictions we enjoy today. But beyond supposition, there's little evidence that establishes this version over those it seeks to replace. There's nothing gained by supplanting an inspiring fictional character with one who may be closer to the texture of the warlords who lived in fifth and sixth century Britain without, at least, some evidence that the new version is reasonably accurate.”
“There is no legend here, no vision. Power and money alone don't last. Hollicks' Arthur is nothing but another petty warlord, no different from any of history's other petty, brutal, unremembered warlords. The kind of lord no person in their right mind would follow once the gold runs out. Of course it's the author's right to spin such a tale - however, it rather misses the point of the Arthurian legends altogether.”
These reviewers /commenters have missed the point that
a) I researched and used the early Welsh legends of Arthur – which depict him as a rough, tough, not very likeable warlord (yes, complete with hitting women!)
b) Have missed the point that the Dark Ages were not nice times. Women got raped. Men went drinking and whoring. That’s the nitty-gritty truth of history folks.
Other readers thought the complete opposite of the above. As in:
“I much prefer this "real" Arthur to the "fairy tale" Arthur. What I like about historical fiction is that the people you read about were actually living, breathing human beings and that makes it so much easier to relate to their shortcomings or concerns or emotions. The Kingmaking was a fabulous novel, hard to put down and now on my list of all-time favorites! Helen Hollick's writing is fantastic and I am very much looking forward to reading the next two in the series!”
“Helen Hollick has refused to be constrained by the stereotypical Arthur we all know through legend - and of course TV! She has created a very different man and we get to know him, his life and loves, warts and all. This Arthur is very human and not always the good guy. This is a fascinating book. I'm now reading the second one of the trilogy. It's great fun getting to know all the characters and learn about their lives in 5th Century Britain. Thanks Helen!”
“Personally I found the book very refreshing and forward looking, if that can be said about a book that covers a period of time well over a thousand years ago. It coincided closely with my own feelings on what the Arthurian period may have been like. The book was certainly a million miles away from the Hollywood image of the period.”
So are these reviews a balanced blend of differing opinions, or biased rants bordering on being nasty because I have dared to depict Arthur in a different light than the more normal Christian almost saint-like king? Are the opposing views useful or not? I suppose it depends on how you personally think of Arthur, and the content of my novel. If you prefer the chivalric king who would shudder at even a mild swear-word – and a reader who abhors even a hint of violence against women, then no, my books are not for you.
I have actually received hate-mail from American readers who have been less than pleasant with their choice of (very rude) words because my Arthur is not a Christian. (Mail from Good Christian People, I might add. As a Pagan I don’t particularly mind being assigned to Hell or threatened by the wrath of God though; I don’t believe in Hell or God.)
As interesting are the opposing views of my writing. These vary from:
“…. the tortured prose that suffuses most of Ms. Hollick's narrative …. prose that leaves the battlefield strewn with thousands of innocent and irrelevant descriptive phrases where simple and direct depictions of action could better help the reader to understand what is happening and why it's important.
"The Kingmaking is boring. It's like watching mediocre actors in a familiar story; we know the archetypes and the basic plot, but it's all written in a way that Hollick seems to think it should be written rather than with any actual effort behind it.”
Well yes, I did write it as I thought it should be written… isn’t that what individual authors do? It would be boring if we all wrote the same way wouldn’t it?
And on my accuracy of history, apparently I have no knowledge of the period:
“Without sufficient knowledge of the historical period, very little awareness of the warrior culture of which she would write, possessing unrefined writing skills, but with an apparently strong desire to explore the love story of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (that's Guinevere to most of the rest of us), an inexperienced author bit off more than she was ready to chew. The result, unfortunately, was "The Kingmaking".
On the other hand:
“It was a rather fast read because it was action packed. I felt like this Arthur and Guinevere could really have existed. It's a novel set in the Dark Ages and remains faithful to the times, not the romanticized idea of King Arthur's Camelot. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Arthurian literature or historical fiction. It's not really a romance novel, as it has more battle and action than historical romance does. It's a highly enjoyable read.”
“Don't read this book (or any of the trilogy) expecting a tale of mystery, magic and Merlin. Rather a historian's view of what the real Arthur and Britain in the post-Roman, pre-Saxon age might have been like. This is a time when Rome has deserted the British and the English are only just arriving from 'Germany' bringing with them upheaval and a constant struggle for power. A time when 1000 soldiers is considered a major force and tribal and ethnic loyalties are constantly shifting. As in real life many people are looking to the past and the glory of Rome while others want to look to the future. Not as clear a distinction as it sounds. Dirt, death, tragedy and a nicely dispassionate view of life and death keeps the books rocking along even though they are quite substantial. I did manage to put it down but it did certainly keep me popping back as often as possible.”
A historian well versed in this period praised me in a review for the Historical Novel Society for my historical detail being superbly accurate, so I suppose the consensus of opinion is – reviews are not necessarily useful or helpful, because different readers have vastly different perspectives. Which is a good thing, because it would disastrous for Imaginative Fiction if all books - and the subsequent opinions of them - were all the same!
Meanwhile – if you’d like to add a comment about the Kingmaking (or any of my novels) onto Amazon, please do… as long as it’s a nice one LOL
My Amazon Author Page
The Kingmaking available at an Amazon store near you:
(US publisher Sourcebooks Inc)
(UK publisher Silverwood Books)
Originally published by William Heinemann.
Full details of the Pendragon's Banner Trilogy HERE
soon to be published in German by Sadwolf